August 15th, 2012

Faculty Collegiality as a Synergistic Agent


faculty collegiality

I have had the privilege to be invited to many campuses to speak about strategies for incorporating a collegial-mindset within the university. A campus culture that values collegiality and civility is among the most important contributions a university can make. Academic departments recognize the desirability of a collegial environment for faculty members, students, and professional employees and that such an environment should be maintained and strengthened throughout the university. In an environment enhanced by trust, respect, and transparency faculty members can be revivified so that they can play an active and responsible role in academic matters. A collegial relationship is most effective when peers work together to carry out their duties and responsibilities in a professional manner.

Universities are one of the last bastions where people can share divergent ideas and thoughts. In fact, both shared governance and academic freedom are endemic to sharing knowledge – with students as well as with colleagues and peers. Collegiality does not impinge on the freedom of faculty members to make their views known.

What we strive for in the academy is a healthy and respected sharing of ideas and concepts where people feel free to express their divergent and oftentimes conflicting views. In fact, many historians consider this concept to be one of the hallmarks of higher education. We most certainly do not want affable Babbitts mimicking everything that a senior faculty member subscribes to or thinks. What we do want is dissent – more specifically, positive dissent. One of the dominant characteristics of higher education in that professors have opportunities to express their ideas openly and unafraid of castigation in the form of petty reprisals of a personal nature. Discussions may be passionate. Discussions may become heated. But, discussions should never become mean, nasty, or vindictive. Professionals may disagree, express their thoughts ardently, but never vindictively or personally.

Facilitating a culture of collegiality can be the synergistic agent of good relationships among members of a department – which all too often is severely missing. The clarion call can be agree to disagree with being disagreeable! It is clear that constructive arguments over ideas – but not personal arguments over ideas—drive greater performance and creativity. It is important for the department chair as well as other faculty members in the department to deal with and, as stridently and quickly as necessary, address the malefactors on the staff.

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Contagion from uncivil and venomous faculty members can create significant short-term and long-term threats to the department. They become a ubiquitous presence that stifles the culture and productivity in a department. However, when people engage in disagreements over ideas in an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect, they develop stronger ideas and perform better. The end product is often superior to one person working alone in isolation. Working on a solution to a problem in an environment built on trust, reverence, and civility can awaken people from their self-afflicted torpor and enable them to contribute a meaningful resolution to a quandary.

Robert E. Cipriano is professor emeritus in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at Southern Connecticut State University. His latest book Facilitating a Collegial Department in Higher Education: Strategies For Success was published by Jossey-Bass in 2011. Contact him at:

Join Robert Cipriano for Fostering a Collegial Environment: Guidelines for the Department Chair, a live online seminar coming Sept. 18. LEARN MORE »

  • drrichard

    It's a complex issue. You might have someone who is an asocial loner–not toxic, but just not engaged–but a brilliant writer or researcher. In some schools such a person would be such a departmental asset that he or she should be kept, even if not "collegial." Then too it could depend on the field, with some of the harder sciences and technologies attracting folks who were more likely to be less social than, say, those in the arts or humanities. So a single metric for all disciplines might not always be appropriate. And from bitter personal experience I found that being collegial doesn't help much if your opinions (liberal in a very conservative environment) don't match those of the faculty ruling on tenure. Perhaps measuring the social dynamics of schools and departments is as important as the abilities of individuals to get along.

  • C Tilghman

    Of course we all want to work in a polite, civil environment. But having personality traits evaluated as part of tenure promotion strikes me as problematic. I've known many colleagues who have rude moments, brusque personalities, irritating habits, and simply bad days. They are still good colleagues, smart, engaged, good teachers and careful researchers. I value their perspectives, even if they are brusque or tactless at times. They are human.

  • D Vos

    When I began reading the article, I had hoped Dr. Cipiriano would provide a working definition of collegiality. What exactly does "collegiality" look like? This article did not answer my question.

  • Jana McCurdy

    I particularly like this thought: "Discussions may be passionate. Discussions may become heated. But, discussions should never become mean, nasty, or vindictive. Professionals may disagree, express their thoughts ardently, but never vindictively or personally." I find passionate and heated discussions very stimulating and exciting. I love working in a location where this can be a typical and expected part of the work environment. I have also worked in places where the comments are "mean, nasty and vindictive" — sometimes these are public comments, workplace communications, and private indirect attacks. Personal attacks are disheartening and counterproductive.

    I interpret collegiality as professional behavior — respectful towards self and others — not as political correctness — saying what is popular or easily defensible. We can disagree without being disagreeable. I would want my institution full of people who know the difference.

  • dave porter

    Collegiality and civility are certainly good things. I can personally attest to their many benefits as well as the great costs their absence can entail. However, not all good things can be achieved by assessing them directly and attaching high stakes (such as tenure) to the outcome. Such criterion control systems nearly always fail to produce the desired results: in this case, increased collegiality. No matter how valid the instrument is in the beginning, clever colleagues will find ways to game the system by increasing their scores independently of their actual contributions to the departmental or campus climate. (This is epitomized by the few faculty members who regularly bring donuts to class on the day student critiques are submitted.) One of the things that has made the study of human thought and behavior so fascinating over the last four decades has been my repeated discovery of cases of "paradoxical intent" – where trying to do something directly results in the antithesis of the desired result. As a lawyer friend of mine puts it: "No good deed goes unpunished."

  • Carol Lever

    Collegiality is what drives innovation, global peace initiatives, creative governance, and good communitications through respectful dialogue. It is also a fundamental social skill. When there are know it all's in leadership roles there is nothing to learn from the inherent creativity and intelligence of others.

    Without objectivity, curiosity, investigative analysis, and inquire learning is stiffled, rehearsed and memorized, and what fun is that for the student?

    Dictatorial rulers are fools who have no respect for the intelligence and creativity that they control through sensorship.

  • Almin1

    Normally I would have chosen "yes" but having had direct experience with a dysfunctional department – dean, chair, etc., I wouldn't want them to check off a box that asked if I was being collegial. All of these dysfunctional people were either fired, retired or moved to another area by the new president. I endured behavior that was far from collegial but because these were my supervisors, they had control over what was written in my evaluations. I believe that the evaluation should stick with the job description. Someone that is not being collegial in fulfilling his/her role as professor would probably receive bad evaluations from students and would be a known problem on campus. Frankly, it's the rogue professors that get the attention. No one wants to deal with them so to appease them, they usually get what they want. You don't need a box to check-off.

  • Rick

    This discussion doesn't seem to pertain to the vast numbers of adjunct faculty, many of whom do extraordinary work for little reward. They are judged exclusively by student evaluations and may shy away from "collegial" activities because their jobs aren't protected. If students don't t appreciate informed, civil discussions because they don't coincide with their views, and castigate the prof in the (anonymous) evaluations, then the prof whose job depends on evaluations won't encourage discussions. Our national politics is polarized, and the educational community at large must bear some responsibility for the lack of political ability and civility to carry on a dialogue. Collegiality and tenure are wonderful, but they don't include the legions of part-time instructors, who should be evaluated on their writing and ideas, not just half-baked evaluations.

  • Sandy

    Collegiality, IMO can never be objective. It is a dangerous tool that can be manipulated by others to get rid of those who threaten them. I have seen collegiality used by "academic mobbers" to eviscerate a professor until she committed suicide. NEVER, NEVER, NEVER will I support the used of collegiality as a criterion by which to measure promotion, tenure or retention!!